Hennie Coetzee, director at Boogertman + Partners, is a man with a wealth of experience in the building industry. From South Africa to Dubai, he has worked across a diverse range of projects, and in this exclusive interview with Africanism, he talks about the architectural legacy he has left behind, the challenges faced on big projects and how the industry has changed during his career.
We see that you have been with Boogertman for over 27 years?
HC: Is it that long? It certainly feels like it sometimes! I started here on the 10th of January 1991. I had worked for Taljaard Carter for a number of years, who subsequently became TC Design. I was also involved in project management on a residential development project in Soweto – which was a great experience – then I was with Partnership Jan van Wijk for 18 months before joining Boogertman + Partners.
I was at school with, and also worked with Andre Krige, who was one of the founding partners of Boogertman Krige Blignaut as the practice was known at the time. He asked me to join the practice since, at the time, there was a big project waiting in the wings and they needed someone with big project experience to manage this project. It was the head office for Momentum Life, which has subsequently become the Merchant Place/First Rand campus in Sandton.
Since then I have worked on a wide range of projects – commercial, over 140 000sqm of industrial space in Kya Sands, Strydom Park area, and a lot of work at O.R Tambo International Airport, which was very interesting. It’s a different environment to work in because you get exposed to the international aviation requirements. I have also done a lot of retail work and a bit of residential work.
We have worked widely… I was also involved in a big project in Dubai. We started a practice with MDS Architecture and Ridler Shepherd Low called DSA Architecture where we were one of the founding shareholders, and I personally set up that office just down the road in Bryanston. That was also a very good experience. I never moved to Dubai but I was one of the lead architects on the project. We had a concept architect from Creative Kingdom in the US and we were the Architect of Record. Being exposed to the international market was a very good experience.
HC: I have been a director at the practice since 1996. We’ve been through difficult times – the last recession was tough – but we got through it, managed the business well and were very frugal with our expenses and we have been fortunate to be appointed on very large projects, in Sandton specifically. Those projects help you to ride the dip as they are long-term – you work through the recession.
But the economy remains tough and the land expropriation without compensation issue is a dark cloud hanging over our heads. We don’t know what the future holds and how it will affect the profession and the property market! We just have to wait and see – we’re not good at crystal ball gazing!
Boogertman is a progressive company though, not one which sits around and waits for projects to appear.
HC: Yes, often we launch products and take them to clients who see the potential in them, then it starts getting feet and a development happens.
How many projects would you normally work on simultaneously?
HC: It depends on the size, but I am personally involved in the Fourways Mall extension, which is on site at the moment, and it’s adding to my collection of grey hairs… I’m also busy on a retail development in Port Elizabeth which is another 15-20 000sqm of retail space. I’m working on a few industrial projects too, as well as a very interesting project in Gaborone where a client of ours wants to use the underground rights on a public open space for additional parking. To get those rights they are prepared to develop the public piazza for the community, and that’s well advanced. That’s an example of a very interesting, new approach to development which we are involved in. There are always other enquiries which come our way. I’d prefer to work on three large projects than 30 smaller projects though.
Was architecture always a path that you would likely have taken when you were younger?
HC: It’s interesting, I didn’t read The Fountainhead to inspire me (laughs). My father had a friend who was an architect, and I think I was in Standard 9 (now Grade 11) and he was one of the architects working on the Carlton Centre project in Johannesburg. He often took me to site to have a look at what was happening there, and that inspired me to follow a career in architecture.
Which of your early projects stands out the most for you?
HC: I would say that the highlight of my career would be the whole Merchant Place development in Sandton, and very close behind, the North Pier development at O.R. Tambo International Airport. The experience in Dubai was magnificent too. It was themed Arabian architecture – a 900 room resort hotel development which comprised three different hotels on one site – with a lot of detailing. Because of the hot climate in Dubai there were a lot of infrastructural challenges, for cooling for instance, and desalination of water because there are no natural resources there. And then the detailing which the concept architects came up with – it was so realistic and true to the Arabian culture, and it required a lot of drawing work. We had a team of 30 people working on it in one office. We opened an office in Dubai to support this project, and then out of that we received enquiries for other projects in the Middle East, so it was very fruitful.
Do you do much drawing these days?
HC: I’ve become a desk jockey! (Laughs) I try to keep my hands in on all the projects, but as far as the computer software is concerned, I am still proficient in Autocad, but we have moved beyond that into the BIM environment. I use it, but I don’t produce on it – I view things, I can red-line it on the computer, but I still have a drawing boarding my office and still use it, which I enjoy.
What has changed the most in the industry over your career?
HC: Technology, absolutely. Technology has helped us – look, these days every project is a fast-track project – and without any form of technology, you would fall off the bus. However, I also see technology as a stumbling block if it is not used correctly. People tend to think that the computer sorts out everything, but especially the younger people who don’t have a lot experience, they don’t understand that that guy on site doing the building work needs a piece of paper; he doesn’t work off an iPad or a laptop. He needs a piece of paper, and the information on that piece of paper must be well thought through, it must be comprehensive and it must be correct. And that’s where sometimes a gap develops. For us older guys, its hard work to make sure that it happens, and there’s a mentorship involved as well, to bring home to the people that they must think about the people on site who have to do the building work. Be a builder when you draw.
How have you seen Boogertman as a company evolving?
HC: When I joined the practice we were down the road in Epsom Downs Office Park, and all in, including the tea girl, the guy doing the deliveries and the secretary, we were eight people. We had a lot of fun then – it was nice and small, and very personal because we were such a small group.
The Johannesburg office grew to about 15 people and then we were awarded the RMB head office in a competition. We were expected to form a joint venture with another firm of architects and the winner of the competition would be the lead architect. We had the design flair and they had the management. But certain circumstance changed and we were asked to take over the project in its entirety. I remember one day when we were in a site meeting, construction had progressed and I looked around the table and I asked everyone there if anyone had ever built a tower building, and everybody shook their heads. We were young and fearless and just got stuck in and built the building and it was a huge success.
The condition which we had from our client, was that if we weren’t successful on Phase 1, there were four other phases to follow and they would appoint someone else to do it. But I spent five years on that project and saw it through to the end, which was very satisfying.
Five years on a project… What do you do to unwind?
HC: I used to cycle but I am getting to old for that now! Occasionally I do a bit of mountain biking over the weekend, and I also have motorcycles so I ride my bike on weekends. I also do woodwork and my wife and I like the outdoors so we often go camping or go on a self-drive safari to Botswana. But work absorbs you, and we accept that, and hopefully we will be able to enjoy the spoils of our efforts in time.
What are the current growth areas for Boogertman?
HC: I think that there’s a big question mark at this time over South Africa for various reasons. I think the political climate is improving, which will hopefully bring back overseas investments. The big projects which we have done in Sandton, for big tenants relocating into new buildings. They are going to leave a vacuum behind in the buildings they previously occupied. If you don’t get any international interest in that, that’s a vacuum which needs to be filled before any new developments are likely to take place. We have an office in Nairobi and they are doing exceptionally well and there are a lot of enquiries in that region.
There’s also a strong drive to branch out internationally, starting in the UK. We go where the work is – we are not afraid to travel. But to set up an office elsewhere is expensive, especially if you are setting it up with South African rand… if you can do a project and be paid for it in their local currency and use that to set up an office, then that is the ideal scenario. When you work internationally you have to form a JV with local architects. In Dubai we had to do this, because you have to have a trade licence to operate. Through the local engineers, now known as Aurecon, they had a connection who was then our ‘sponsor’ and we had to submit the plans under their name.
What are some of the challenges being a director in a big firm?
HC: Keeping the business profitable… One of the biggest challenges nowadays is the fees structure and the expectations from our clients to do risk work. The risk work we used to do was a design and a brochure, that was it, now they are expecting us – not all of them, that we submit site development plans and even building plans on risk. That’s going a bit far as far as I am concerned. We are funding their project, as often the banks need approved building plans before the funding starts, and it’s unfair to expect us to fund their business. But it is a fight which we have to fight, and that is a huge challenge. We’ve got in excess of 250 people in the four South African offices plus the Nairobi office, and it’s an expensive operation. So you have to fight for your fees to have a positive cash flow.
What key things do you look for in potential new staff?
HC: Obviously talent; people who have flair in design. I have never been too strong on design myself, I am more of a project architect doing implementation of the projects, so I look for the practicality aspect as well. It’s all very well to do a design, but you must be able to build it as well. If you can find that balance between good design and buildability, that’s always a good characteristic to have in a young architect.
Our young architects are very talented though and our architectural schools are very good – they really deliver good graduates, but they need the experience. I was there myself as well, it’s a fact of life – but the universities tend to focus more on design nowadays and not on construction too much, the buildability aspect of it.
If you talk about contemporary architecture, the guys are doing incredible designs – and I am talking about buildings which are being built both in South Africa and internationally. I often say that clients have ‘Dubai fever’ and they have these weird and wonderful ideas of what their building must look like and how it must be 60 stories high… but you have to fill that with tenants otherwise it’s not a feasible project. But the contemporary architecture which we see nowadays is very good and I believe that South African architects are up there with the best. Definitely.
What is some advice you have for young, aspiring architects?
HC: It’s a personal thing, either you like it or you don’t. In our BEEE endeavours, we were involved with a school of girls in Soweto, and when we spoke to them about architecture, they didn’t know what we were talking about. They were just never exposed to it, but funnily enough, out of that school there are some girls who have gone on to study architecture and qualified as architects. Fortunately, the seed was dropped.
How important is diversity in your company?
HC: We embrace transformation. We aspire to be a practice which truly represents the demographics of South Africa at all levels. It will take time, though.
Do you have any thoughts on the future of architecture?
HC: Architecture is essential. I often say to builders, ”Guys, you must understand – nothing happens until the first line is draw.” You cannot have an environment without architecture. Even if you think of a rural village – that is architecture. There’s a worldwide population boom, so where are these people going? They need places to live, they need places to work, they need places to create, and all of that hinges around architecture.
Urbanism is a reality – a lot of people is going to live in high-rise buildings – but you can’t keep people cooped up in these little holes, they need to be able to work, live and play in that environment.
I’m wondering what you think your legacy will be. Do you feel like you’ve done what you set out to achieve?
HC: I reached retirement age last year but I was fortunately asked to stay and I am very happy about that. I think I can still make a contribution to the practice. I’ve been very fortunate in the projects that I have been exposed to and worked on – it’s been a diversity which has gone beyond most architect’s expectations. And that I am very grateful for. I think my experience in the building industry is still an asset to this practice. I will probably retire in two years’ time, and maybe there will be an opportunity to engage on a project-by-project basis.
Finally, what do you still dream of building?
HC: There’s always something which comes out of the woodwork which you don’t expect. I must say, I enjoyed the airport project very much, and again I refer to Dubai; those large-scale projects are very exciting. Despite all the frustrations experienced on Fourways Mall, I like the big projects – it’s very challenging. You’re at the coal-face, you’re the point man dealing with the client, dealing with all the consultants, dealing with the contractor, but credit still goes to the whole team behind you who support you through the project.
Read the first in the series of interviews with the architects at Boogertman + Partners here: Behind the scenes at 1 Discovery Place